The Arab Revolts: Book Review

The Arab Revolts: Dispatches on Militant Democracy in the Middle East. Edited by David McMurray and Amanda Ufheil-Somers. Public Cultures of the Middle East and North Africa. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2013. Pp. ix, 260, with notes, index. ISBN: 9780253009685 (cloth); 9780253009753 (paperback); 9780253009784 (e-book).

The Arab Revolts consists of a collection of articles on the 2011 uprisings sparked by the Tunisian protests in December 2010. All articles were originally published in the Middle East Report and contain an analysis of the causes and consequences of these events that is neither too broad nor too detailed. The book is arranged into five sections covering the following countries: Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, and Bahrain. Each section begins with current events in the country of interest, shifts to historical analysis, then returns to current conditions. Libya is not covered due to the fact that it was nearly impossible to conduct research there before the fall of Qaddafi.

This collection helps fill in the gaps left by Western media’s emphasis on the Arab Spring uprisings as spontaneous youthful protests by providing a more nuanced analysis that situates them within both the local social, political, and economic history of individual countries, as well as broader trends touching upon the Middle East in general. Several common themes recur in the historical analyses of these five countries as factors leading up to the 2011 uprisings: increased poverty, frequently due to neo-liberal reforms that led to the concentration of wealth in a small segment of the population; repressive, authoritarian regimes that interfere with daily living; and increased religiosity. Emphasis is also placed on the history of collective action in each of these countries that has largely gone unnoticed by Western media. Country-specific issues include the breakdown of civil society under the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia, the growth of the “deep state” in Egypt, the North-South and Sunni-Zaydi dichotomies in Yemen, the repression of secular opposition in Syria, and the institutional discrimination against the majority Shiʿi population in Bahrain.

The writing is both insightful and accessible, making this work suitable for a broad audience, including college students, policy makers and general readers. Accessibility to non-Arabic speakers is enhanced by the lack of diacritics as well as the use of typical English spelling for names where feasible. Each article is followed by a list of references that typically provide more detailed and/or background information. The index mainly covers personal names, corporate bodies, and places, and a section of short biographies of the contributors is included. This book is an excellent addition to any library or institution that would like to provide access to a solid collection of analyses on the history and causes of the Arab Spring.

Denise Soufi
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill